How often do we pick up a camera in excitement and just start shooting—trying to capture a place, event or other subject—perhaps operating on autopilot, out of habit and experience? There is, of course, some value in this strategy when things are happening quickly. When it comes to more contemplative forms of photography, however, I believe we owe it to ourselves to slow down and ask two very simple, yet important questions:
What makes me want to photograph this subject?
How can I best convey that?
The more specific we can be with the answers, the better. “It’s beautiful,” isn’t nearly as helpful as, “I love how the fog creates a quiet, peaceful atmosphere,” or “I love the way the sunlight filters through the trees, making the leaves shimmer.” Knowing what excites us or compels us to take a photograph should guide our decisions regarding composition, lighting, shutter speed and depth of field. It may dictate whether the subject is best conveyed in color or black and white. And it impacts our choice of lens—as we may need to zoom in on one element of the composition with a telephoto lens, move within inches of our subject to convey details with a macro lens, or take in a broader view with a wide-angle lens.
Once we know exactly what it is that we want to share or convey with a photograph, it is much easier to consider our options and to edit out everything that is unnecessary. Perhaps different lighting or another angle would better call attention to what compels us. When photographing plants, for instance, the shape of a leaf, the gesture of a flower, a unique branching structure, or the fuzzy hairs on a stem may be what piqued our sense of curiosity. Backlighting would highlight those hairs; a dark or blurred background might make the leaf stand out; a light breeze and sense of movement could emphasize a flower's gentle sense of gesture; shooting in winter when a plant is leafless may best show off the branching structure.
Portrait photography is not my specialty, but the same approach applies. What is it that we find compelling about a person? Do they have striking features that should be emphasized? How might their unique personality be conveyed? Is soft lighting or strong, directional light more appropriate to set the mood? Is the surrounding environment important or is this more about what we see in their eyes and face?
No matter what the subject, it helps to clarify what you hope to convey. Figuring out how to convey that may take some time and exploration, and is where the real art comes in. So the next time you grab your camera, pause a moment and ask yourself what it is that intrigues or excites you about a subject. Then let the answer guide the way to new discoveries and more compelling images.